Music News & Reviews

Pop influences at 41st Festival Mozaic

The Modern Mandolin Quartet will play in the festival’s Fringe Series.
The Modern Mandolin Quartet will play in the festival’s Fringe Series. PHOTOS COURTESY OF FESTIVAL MOZAIC

Since the beginning of the Baroque era, composers have sought inspiration from pop culture.

Georg Philipp Telemann wrote a suite inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ 15th-century masterpiece, “Don Quixote.”

Maurice Ravel used French fairy tales as the basis of his “Mother Goose Suite.” And Antonín Dvorák mixed American influences with the dances and folk ballads of his native Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.

“There wasn’t a barrier between art music and contemporary culture of the day as there is now,” said Scott Yoo, Festival Mozaic’s music director.

This year, Festival Mozaic seeks to follow the example of those composers by offering “a blend of high art and pop culture,” Yoo said. The 12-day music festival, which features concerts and soirees of every stripe, runs now through July 24.

“The festival’s always trying to bring in new audiences,” explained Executive Director Bettina Swigger, noting Festival Mozaic’s mission to bring classical music to the masses. “This is a fun way of thinking about it.”

Currently celebrating its 41st season, Festival Mozaic kicked off Wednesday with a San Luis Obispo house concert highlighting the works of 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc.

Tonight brings the start of the festival’s Chamber Series, followed by the first entry in the Evenings with the Orchestra Series. Both of those concerts take place at the Cuesta College Cultural and Performing Arts Center, a venue that Swigger called the festival’s new “home base.”

Other notable events include a “Don Quixote”- themed concert at Chapel Hill in Shandon and a Mission San Luis Obispo concert showcasing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor.”

The festival will also feature the world premieres of works by pianist John Novacek and saxophone player Patrick Zimmerli.

Yoo had high praise for both composers, describing Zimmerli as a “devotee of Brahms and Barry Manilow.”

“(Novacek has) played everything of classical music there is, but on the other hand, he’s familiar with every Cuban Latin dance,” the music director added.

According to Swigger, this year’s festival boasts a world-class lineup: percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, violinists Caroline Campbell and Dale Barltrop, and Orion Weiss and his wife, Anna Polonsky. both pianists.

For the guest artists, “It’s not just another gig. It’s a special place,” Swigger said, noting that festival musicians stay in local homes.

Yoo, who lives in New York, agreed that Festival Mozaic feels like a second home.

“If the venue is small enough, I know everyone in the audience on a first-name basis,” he said, a sure-fire motivation to do a good job. “It’s like playing for the home team.”

According to Yoo, Central Coast audiences are “more knowledgeable” than their peers.

“They’re more open to new things very sophisticated, very willing to try something they haven’t before,” he said.

The Notable Encounters Series, which runs throughout the festival, offers audience members insight into the stories behind the music. Hourlong lectures are paired with gourmet food and wine in intimate venues including the Dolphin Bay Resort in Pismo Beach, the Vina Robles Hospitality Center in Paso Robles and the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden.

Meanwhile, the festival’s popular Fringe Series features performances by the Modern Mandolin Quartet, presenting a blend of bluegrass, jazz and classical music, and Tango No. 9, a Bay Area quartet dedicated to the Argentine dance music.

The highlight of the Fringe Series is “Classical Musicians Doing Decidedly Un-Classical Things,” a July 20 concert that features music by tango legend Astor Piazolla, former Beatle George Harrison and film composer Johnny Mandel.

Festival Mozaic comes to a close July 24 with a grand finale concert featuring John Corigliano’s concerto for 1998’s “The Red Violin.” (The festival screened the film, which tracks a prized violin as it passes from generation to generation, last week.)

“It’s absolutely serious music. It’s not dumbed down for the audience,” Yoo said of “The Red Violin.”

The piece is paired with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” inspired by “The Arabian Nights.”

Yoo hopes the pop culture- packed program will attract music lovers who wouldn’t normally attend a festival event.

“There’s a huge amount of curiosity in this county about classical music,” he said, adding that, unfortunately, “people feel intimidated about it.”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.

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